Twenty-one strains of Burkholderia cepacia isolated from the environment, and 21 clinical strains isolated principally from sputum of cystic fibrosis (CF) patients, were characterized genotypically by macrorestriction analysis (genome fingerprinting) and PCR ribotyping, and phenotypically by susceptibility to antibiotics and the ability to macerate onion tissue. The plasmid content of the strains was also investigated. Environmental isolates showed a high degree of genetic variability, all strains differing from both one another and the CF isolates. The CF isolates were less variable, with common strains found in patients attending three geographically distinct CF centres. Phenotypic variation was found both within and between CF and environmental strains. Generally, CF isolates displayed higher levels of antibiotic resistance, while the ability to macerate onion tissue was more prevalent amongst environmental isolates. Plasmids were more frequently found in CF isolates, but were of similar size in both groups of strains. Such variability is not surprising in view of the existence of multiple genomovars within the B. cepacia complex.